Venice by Foot
What kind of shoes were the gallerinas wearing at the Biennale this year?
As an inveterate art-fair visitor, I have become obsessed by what kind of footwear to bring. And as an unrepentant shoe fetishist, I always take more with me than I really need. But even for a normal human being, the Venice Biennale is no easy packing decision. In Venice, the weather determines your footwear, and more than any other city, you better be prepared. After all, you are on your feet all day. You trudge through the main venue, the Giardini, which is pebbly when dry, with large patches of grass, and muddy when wet—meaning your shoes get ruined unless you happen to be wearing flip-flops. High heels during the day are clearly evidence of vanity and madness, despite their wearers’ assurance that all is fine. At night, vertiginous heels come out in force for the parties, but they are usually ferried about in water taxis to the various events.
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At the Arsenale, the other large venue of the Biennale, it is a similar story. The ground is so dusty that your shoes immediately become coated in a film of whitish-grey matter, so fine that you need to wash or brush both feet and footwear after a long hard day of looking at contemporary art. I spotted Naomi Campbell inside, with boyfriend Vladislav Doronin in tow. She was wearing knee-high black gladiator-style lacy leather boots by Azzedine Alaïa, the opposite of light and breezy. “Why are you wearing these,” I asked, carefully timing my question in between her talking on one of her two cellphones. “I am Alaïa’s muse,” Campbell replied. “And I always wear his shoes.” I suppose a muse has to suffer for her art.
“I am Alaïa’s muse,” Naomi Campbell replied. “And I always wear his shoes.” I suppose a muse has to suffer for her art.
At the exit, author Zadie Smith floated by in a black floor-length sundress, with a pair of Miu Miu’s bejewelled burnt orange open-toed ballerinas peeking out as she walked. “I was dreaming of something like this happening with these shoes,” she said, when I asked her whether I could photograph them.
Meanwhile, at The Daily Beast party last week, Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue, and Countess Marie Brandolini d’Adda, a glass designer, stood out—and tall. Both in Prada, (the shoe brand of choice in Venice), Sozzani wore delicate high-heeled golden court shoes, and Brandolini a pair of sexy purple sandals with sky-high heels.
Incidentally, there is no way you can walk in Venice for any length of time with shoes that height, they are clearly "water taxi shoes." Most Venetians carry a pair of shoes in their bag anyway, other than the one they are wearing. “One for walking and one for bellezza (beauty),” my friend and hostess Romilly McAlpine, a Venice resident for the last 20 years, told me. “You never know. The weather changes, you have to walk so much, and the ground is hard and uneven,” she said. Her advice is to go flat during the day, and indeed, when it is sunny, Venetian ladies stroll along the street wearing strappy well-made flat sandals. Rain changes the whole game plan, of course, as colorful Wellies or flip-flops come out in force.
I also met the sensible Lady Helen Windsor at the Ridotto, who had obviously come to the same conclusion as McAlpine. Without prompting, Lady Helen launched into her own Biennale shoe history. “I used to wear smart leather loafers, like all my Italian friends, but at the end of the day my feet were agony. That’s until I discovered flip-flops.” In fact, she now wears FitFlops, that night a black glittery evening version, designed by Marcia Kilgore of Bliss. FitFlops are marketed as an alternate summer version of the hardcore MBTs, the Masai Barefoot Technology shoes. Both brands promise that the shoes tone you and help your back while you walk. The only MBTs I saw at the Biennale were a white sandal version on Bianca Jagger, who was sitting outside the Russian pavilion.
Most people want to look good in Venice, which counts out cheerful sportswear, especially for women. I know many gallerinas who plan their outfits in advance, as they do not want to look dowdy among the international art crowd. As temperatures rise, however, there comes a tipping point when elegance goes out of the window. No one who attended will ever forget the legendary heat of the 2003 Biennale. People fainted on the spot with dehydration, which is why now there are lovely bars serving water throughout the Arsenale. But then, feet swelled up, were patched with Band-Aids, and finally plunged into any kind of water. People literally abandoned their shoes and walked barefoot.
This method was also adopted at last Friday’s Missoni party for Bruce Nauman, though for a different reason. The weather changed dramatically that night, causing a deluge, so everyone took off their shoes to protect them, except for the elegant Carine Roitfeld, editor of French Vogue, who remained bravely in her stiletto-and-string Azzedine Alaïas. Hers are my favorite high heels of the moment; as for flats, it is my own stone-colored TOD’S loafers, because they’re comfortable and have carried me to many an art fair—they also still look like new. Roitfeld went in the same sexy heels to the Prada party for artist John Wesley, where, alas, there was another lady wearing them, jewelry designer Aurélie Bidermann. Roitfeld was the first to point out this fashion faux pas to me, but I felt the party and the shoes were big enough for two pairs.
There are, of course, men at the Biennale, but let’s face it, for the most part, men’s shoes are often boring. At the Biennale, there were loafers and sneakers, with a few rubber sandals or lace-ups thrown in. Men’s shoe designers should take a leaf out of the book of artist John Baldessari, who installed a banner on the Grand Canal side of the Hotel Bauer, proclaiming “I will not make anymore boring art.” One of the few exceptions is James Lindon, dapper director of PaceWildenstein, who always wears something interesting. I took him to my secret shoe shop, Dittura Gianni and Dittura Massimo, a father and son who have been selling "Le Originali Pantafole Friulane" since the 1950s, wonderful velvet slippers with rubber soles made from bicycle tires, worn by Venetians since the Serenissima Republic.
Made in the town of Udine in Friuli, these slippers were the favorite footwear of gondoliers in the 19th century; even now they are made largely for the Venetian market: “if you see a Tintoretto, the shoes are depicted in there,” Massimo proudly told me. You can buy them in a multitude of different colours and they cost 20 euros, or roughly $30. Artists Elmgreen and Dragset also deserve an honorable mention in the shoe department, just as they received one for their Nordic and Danish pavilions installation The Collectors. When I interviewed them, Michael Elmgreen wore Prada’s white quilted patent booties, and Ingar Dragset black walking shoes.
In Venice, even some of the artworks have shoes; as I looked at the floating corpse in the swimming pool of The Collectors, I saw a pair of neat black lace-ups with a square-ish toe placed on the edge of the pool, and a pair of gray socks cast aside. The shoes belonged to the fictitious “collector” in the work, as if he had made one final act before plunging into the pool to his death. He was fully clothed, but had taken his shoes off. “The shoes are by Prada and the socks by Yves Saint Laurent,” Elmgreen said. At the Venice Biennale, even corpses are well-shod.
Bettina von Hase is founder/director of the art consultancy Nine AM, and writes about art and culture.